Five Minutes With... RJ Sauer
17 February, 2022
RJ Sauer is an ultracyclist with an impressive racing history, the Highland Trail 550, Atlas Mountain Race and the Iditarod to name a few. However, RJ is best known for his story-telling; through pictures, film and writing, RJ has a unique way of capturing the essence of bikepacking. You can often find him out on adventure with his son, Oliver, in tow enjoying the scenery from his trailer.
For this 5 Minutes With... We asked him about his work, racing and family. We also probed more into the upcoming Iditarod Trail Invitational, a race RJ filmed in 2001, raced the 1000 mile race in 2014 and 2017 and is now returning for the 350 mile version in 2022.
Featured photo is RJ at Atlas Mountain Race by @saltlake_lian
1. In 2020 you received the DotWatcher Life and Soul award after a mechanical on the AMR, without any spoilers from us, it was an unexpected journey. Could you tell us a little about this experience and how it has changed your racing?
It was a nice, unexpected honour. My reaction to my circumstances in the Atlas Mountain Race, a snapped chain and broken derailleur, tie back to my experiences on the Iditarod Trail and what winter racing taught me: pushing the bike is an acceptable exercise in achieving the goal of finishing any course or journey. I mean, it just becomes part of the journey. This mindset helped me compartmentalize the choice to push my bike 150km and not scratch. Bikepacking isn’t always pretty, and although I don’t actively seek hardship, unexpected conflict can elevate an experience, or at least the memory of that experience. I would add it’s important not to attach too much pride to the act of scratching. Not scratching at times can be reckless. I have seen some of the most experienced and impressive athletes scratch from a race and I admire that choice because it is so difficult to do. But there are times it is the best and perhaps only course of action to take. Every circumstance is different. Hell, I’ve called cabs for the “pick-up-of-shame” when double-flatting near my house. It’s all a matter of perspective. In the end, this experience reminded me what I love most about bikepacking events and races: all competitors celebrating each other. Sure, winning is great, but we all should be proud that we are out there riding. Or, pushing, for that matter.
RJ at Atlas Mountain Race by @saltlake_lian
2. Following on from this incident you wrote a compelling reflection, this is something you do for almost every race. Do you find writing up a race is akin to a closing chapter to the experience?
Reflecting on an event or bikepacking trip is one of my favourite activities. Usually because I am warm, dry, and sipping a coffee and not slogging through the muck. The experience on the trail is akin to collecting wood and kindling for a fire. And I love nothing more than staring into a campfire. I am drawn to bikepacking because of its propensity for storytelling and I tend to choose my trips and events around the opportunity for me to insert myself into an environment or culture I am excited or curious about. I think that’s why I have done so many diverse trips and events over the years and on so many different bikes.
Picture of RJ by @milesarbour on a bikepacking trip in South Chilcotin
3. You’ve completed the Iditarod Trail Invitational 1000 twice and filmed it once in 2001, for many, this would be a once in a lifetime experience, but it seems you’re heading out for the 350 again this year! What keeps you coming back for more?
Well, first off, I think why I and so many others have returned is the ability to transform pain and suffering into sweet little memories into transcendent expeditions of romantic bliss. That’s part one. But more importantly, I think the Iditarod Trail is just such a unique event and environment. No year is ever the same, each year the slate is cleaned as the trail transforms with weather and the unpredictable nature of winter adventure. I also think we grow with each event so I can show up a different person with different goals and perspectives to bring. It is such a vast, blank white canvas. It’s also crazy to compare the technology from when I made my documentary in 2001 to the gear today, including both the racer bike and kit to the film equipment I used for a Thin White Line to what the team were using for Safety to Nome. There is more cinematic power in an iPhone than what I brought along the trail over 20 years ago.
RJ at the Iditarod Trail Invitational 2017 - @RJSauer
4. One immersive aspect of your storytelling is the photos and footage you take during the action. With temperatures reaching -40°C (-40°F), how do you manage to take pictures?
It can be very hard and sometimes I struggle with the dynamic of “am I racing this event or am I documenting this event?” The second I prioritize photography over racing, it really does shift my expectations. It starts before I leave, and what camera gear I bring. DSLR’s and additional lenses add a lot of weight and take up space. So does a drone. Taking photos or video is a commitment, especially when the most dramatic imagery is often when things are rough or uncomfortable. But I do get a real reward from taking pictures, especially after the trip or race and get to reflect on things. Taking pictures along the trail also helps me keep my head up, looking around, observing and searching for moments beyond just a few feet in front of my tire tread. This can really help bring a healthy distraction to the long miles in the saddle. All of this comes back to storytelling and photography and video are such a critical component to that. As they say, a picture tells a thousand words. From a practical perspective, especially when shooting in colder temperatures, it means bringing the right camera and lots of batteries and making sure to keep them in a warm place on the body. I also rely on thin liner gloves. Even though they don’t totally protect from the cold, they save flesh sticking to the camera body and expediting frostbite.
Picture: RJ's shot at the Iditarod 2014
5. We’ve seen some photos of you on the Rexy Gravel Race, 320km from Fruita to Moab in less than 24 hours, it seems you were racing in a slightly unconventional team! How did you and your teammate find this race?
The Rexy Gravel Race was an event I did with my three year old son Oliver and was the culmination of the experiences we have had to date traveling and exploring by bike. Our long training days together, including a completed Everest challenge and our multi-day, family bikepacking trips together have continued to evolve and grow just as much as Oliver and with him starting to ride his own bike, I felt the days pulling him behind me in a Burley trailer were numbered so I wanted us to have a unique and memorable experience together to sort of mark this transition - the turning of a page and his coming of age. I had some wonderful people chasing us along the route and filming so a short film about this experience is due to come out very soon. I reflect on the many similarities of parenting and bikepacking and the unique joys and challenges they bring to my life. And challenges, did I mention challenges?
Pictured: RJ and his family's bikepacking setup
6. You’re a self-described emotional rider, I think this resonates with a lot of our audience; spending many hours on your bike this sometimes seems almost unavoidable. Can you tell us a little more about how this governs your riding and training?
Well, first off, doing long distance bikepacking trips, events and races also means turning off the emotions from time-to-time in order to get the job done. But ultimately, I approach bikepacking from an experiential mindset. Often I ask myself when choosing an adventure or an event, “is this a story I want to be in”?
After my Rexy race with Oliver, I stopped training all together so I could heal a broken rib I suffered a week before racing. With all of the pressure of COVID and the hassle of travel, I realized I needed to refill my mojo. That’s what ultimately lured me back to the Iditarod Trail. My training hasn’t been up to par but I shifted my mindset and looked at this as an opportunity to get reinvigorated. It’s important that it all doesn’t become a proverbial slog. It needs to be fun and fill us in a positive way. I wrote an article for Bikepacking.com about the pros and cons of racing versus expeditions and it speaks to the power of diversity, variety and shaking up our goals. I think allowing my emotions to influence my choices keeps my experiences relevant, fresh and meaningful.
Picture from RJ Sauer at the HT550
7. Last question, a top tip! What is your top tip for riding with a small passenger?
Ha. Patience. Oliver has taught us it isn’t about the speed or the distance. The adventure and the experience is all around us and constantly unfolding so it’s important to take our time. But seriously, patience and a hell of a lot of snacks. It’s also important to listen to your kid. We all need different things and that includes Oliver. And they are continuously evolving so just stay open-minded and adapt.
Pictured: RJ and his son